Out of Time.
Filia shuffled her way to the front door, muttering to herself about who could possibly be calling upon her on her day off. Jillas and Gravos were tending the shop, so it couldn't be them, and Val and all his friends were in school, so nobody would be looking for him at home. She squinted as she put her eye up to the small glass circle and looked out.
She froze. Xellos! His smile looked even more disturbing than ever as the peephole glass warped it—making his face look rounder and the corners of his lips curl unnaturally. Beside him were two beastmen she'd never seen before. Standing taller than the other was a floppy-eared dogman dressed up like a costume wizard—pointy blue hat and all. The smaller figure was a grey and white cat with a fashionably feathered hat perched jauntily between his pointed ears.
Who were they? Xellos's henchmen? That didn't seem like his style… then again, knocking on doors wasn't his style either.
"Did we really have to come all the way out here?" the canine magician asked from the other side of the door. "We could've just stayed and helped build the maze."
"I'm sure Mister Wizer would've appreciated your assistance," Xellos chimed in, "but unfortunately the marquess was quite specific about my supervising the two of you, and since I have a very urgent errand to attend to, I'm afraid you must come along."
"What are we doing here anyway, brother?" the cat asked, turning to the dog.
The dog shrugged. "Search me," he said.
Xellos smiled to himself. "We're here because it's Filia Time," he said. He emphasized the words as though they were of capital importance.
"What's a Filia?" the cat asked.
"Filia," Xellos began, "is the eavesdropping-prone ex-dragon priestess currently listening in behind the door instead of inviting us inside like a reasonably civilized person would."
Filia jerked the door open and glared at him. "Just what is 'Filia Time?'" she demanded.
"Something that's long overdue," was Xellos's only response as he tilted his staff forward to make his way past her.
Filia looked beyond the dog and cat who were uncertainly following Xellos into her house. There was a carriage parked in the road. She hoped it had been simply borrowed instead of stolen. It had a barred window in the back which… wasn't really a positive sign.
She closed the door and swiveled around to survey her three uninvited guests. She pointed at Xellos. "You, I'll interrogate later," she announced. "Who are these people?" she demanded, eyeing the beastmen.
"These are Misters Flan and Zollan," Xellos explained, nodding toward the dog and the cat respectively. "At the moment we share an employer."
She stared at him. A few names that meant nothing, some mentions of an employer without discussing who or what they'd been employed for, and, to top it all off, the mysterious non-answer of "Filia Time." "Do you practice being vague in a mirror?" she asked him through gritted teeth.
"I'm not sure what you mean," Xellos said off-handedly.
"So, does this lady know how to help us get the Sword of Light or something?" Flan asked, hoping to get down to some business that he actually cared about.
Xellos sighed. He knew when to be tight-lipped, but he couldn't say the same about everyone around him.
"The Sword of Light?" Filia repeated in a half-shriek. She turned on Xellos, her fangs suddenly protruding in a countenance that was more reptilian than humanoid. "What are you up to this time, Xellos?!"
Xellos held up his index finger, a big, overdone grin on his face. "Say, neither of you have eaten anything since we set out this morning, have you?" Xellos asked his two companions. He generously waved his hand toward a hallway. "I'm sure Filia has something at least halfway edible in the house. The kitchen's that way."
"Now wait a minute, Xellos! You can't just—"
"Come on, bro!" Zollan called, jogging past the protesting Filia.
"Right behind you!" Flan said, pumping his arms.
"Hey!" Filia called, stretching a hand out after them. She groaned as they disappeared down the hall and turned back to Xellos, fist clenched.
Xellos, oblivious to this, watched the doorway they'd disappeared through. "You know, I keep meaning to ask them if there's any way they're actually related," he said thoughtfully. "But I think I might be better off not knowing."
Filia was beyond caring about any possible scenario that could allow for a cat and dog to be siblings. "Did you seriously bring thieves into my house and then set them loose in my kitchen?!" she asked hoarsely.
Xellos flared out his cape and took a seat in one of the parlor's salmon-colored armchairs. "Would-be thieves," he said gently, as if this made things any better. "If they were successful thieves than I wouldn't have had to take them along and could've used my usual mode of transportation."
"In any case," he said, looking up at her, "I couldn't possibly see you having any problem with them being here unless you've already fulfilled your 'beastmen who've attempted to steal the Sword of Light' quota."
Filia frowned and took the seat across from him. "They're… reformed," she tried. "And anyway, that's another thing," she added, on a fresh surge of anger at unanswered questions. "How could they be trying to steal the Sword of Light when the sword is gone?"
Xellos shrugged. "Replica," he said. It seemed to be all the elaborating he was willing to do on that score.
She leaned forward and looked him square in the closed eye. "Are you going to tell me what's going on here, or what?" she asked in a low voice.
He waved her off. "Of course not. There's no reason you should have to know anything about the current situation. That's not what I need you for."
Filia opened her mouth and let out an exasperated sound. It was typical of Xellos to not give any information yet still expect people to play along with his game. What wasn't necessarily typical was that he actually seemed to have come to her with a real task he needed accomplished. In the past when he'd popped in on her his goals had been… well, stupid stuff. Excuses, really. He'd claim that he was interested in sampling a new tea that she'd bought or that he'd just stopped by to chat. All of it ultimately came down to the fact that he just wanted to be annoying. This seemed a little more… focused.
Come to think of it… it had actually been awhile since he'd visited at all. He must've been busy… though busy with what was the million dollar question.
"What do you need me for? Not," she added pointedly, "that I have any reason whatsoever to help you."
He sat there for a moment as thought searching for the words to explain his request. "I have to admit that I have been with rather…" he nodded his head ever so slightly in the direction of the kitchen, "lackluster company as of late." He rested two fingers on his forehead and shook his head as though something were a shame. "There's much to be developed, but it would go a lot better if I had the right person to bounce ideas off on."
Filia just let her mouth hang open. "You want to use me as a sounding board for your evil schemes?" she repeated in disbelief. "Why me?"
He held out his hand with the palm up and, in a blurry haze of magic, conjured a saucer and steaming cup of tea. He didn't offer her any tea. Not that she'd have taken any of his mysterious, nowhere-tea, but still, it's courteous to offer.
"Our conversations are always productive," he said, bringing the cup to his lips. He grinned and opened one eye. "I suppose you could say that you inspire me."
She scoffed and looked away, hoping her hair was doing a good enough job covering her ears which tended to get a little… pink at comments like that. It was a strange thing, though, very strange, for a demon to say to a dragon. "What am I? Your muse of mischief?" she asked in a tone that she hoped fully expressed how absurd he was being.
"Hmm," he hummed reflectively, looking up. "I like the sound of that actually."
She groaned. He'd make her regret coining that one; that much she was sure of. "To be that, I'd have to actually be mischievous and I'm not!" She crossed her arms. "If I inspire you to do anything it should be good. Not that there's any of that to tease out of you," she added sharply.
He let out a little chuckle. "Is that what you'd expect, Filia?" he asked. "To be a little angel sitting on my shoulder, whispering that I should follow the path of right as ordained by the doctrine of the Fire Dragon King?"
She collapsed back in the armchair. "You'd do the opposite just out of spite," she muttered.
"Hence why you are the perfect muse of mischief," Xellos decided, bringing it full circle. "And even aside from that," he added, "you do have some expertise in what I need to plan."
"I'm not an expert at anything nefarious and that's all you're interested in, so I don't know what help I could be!" Filia insisted.
"Look at the problem like this," Xellos said, "let's say that you wanted to persuade Miss Lina to do something. How would you—"
"Absolutely not!" Filia cut him off, standing up. "You can't be serious!" she shouted. "Miss Lina's my friend! I'm not going to help you talk her into whatever plot you monsters are cooking up!"
"Ah, but it's just the opposite," Xellos elaborated. "I'm asking, if you were trying to persuade Miss Lina to do something, what technique would you choose in order to fail in a most spectacular and painful fashion?"
Filia's forehead, generally smooth despite the many extra decades she'd lived longer than most around her, crinkled. "Why would you…"
"Ah-ah-ah," Xellos scolded, waving a finger at her. "'Why' is not where you come in."
He sipped his tea thoughtfully. "I was thinking at the start that a romantic overture might do the trick." He wiggled his eyebrows at her in a manner she categorized as most unsettling. "She's very immature and has a tendency to react to situations that make her feel unaccustomed emotions quite poorly."
Filia might've agreed if it weren't for the alarm bells going off in her head. "Don't you even dare," she warned, summoning up from deep within her all the ultimately toothless fury that she could threaten him with.
"Oh, not me, Filia," he said, laughing her off. "You don't need to worry," he informed her cheerily. "My eye hasn't wandered. No," he went on, "I have someone else lined up for this little endeavor."
Filia privately wondered at the seeming improper invocation of his eye and its abstention from vagrancy. As far as she was concerned, an eye needed to be focused on something first for it to have the ability to wander off and, as far as she could tell, his eyes only seemed focus on his own eyelids. "Well then whoever he is, he's going to get blown to smithereens!" Filia predicted.
"Yes," Xellos agreed approvingly. "It's going to be hilarious."
Filia rolled her eyes. Of course. Of course Xellos would see other people being in pain or distress as a plus to his plans and not a minus.
"So, what else?" Xellos prompted.
Filia resolved to put Xellos on the other end of a non-answer this time. It wasn't like she actually wanted to help him anyway and he deserved it. "Have you tried actually asking her outright to do something?" she asked sardonically. "Usually that'll make her do the opposite quicker than anything."
"A good point," Xellos said, to Filia's dismay actually seeming to like her "suggestion." "Perhaps I should be writing these down?"
"No!" Filia countered, flopping back into her chair. "There's nothing to write down because I'm not going to tell you anything more! I won't help you in whatever manipulative game you're playing!"
Xellos shrugged. "You already have. I mean, after all, I know how to successfully get Miss Lina to agree to doing something because of you."
"Because of me?" she repeated helplessly.
"Oh yes," Xellos said. "The same ploy you used to con her into following you on your prophesy-following mission: use her big sister."
"That was not a con!" Filia shouted in disgust. "I do not con! I was just… encouraging her to do the right thing."
"Through fear of punishment," Xellos finished. "And it worked. Knowing that will help me a lot once it finally gets down to what needs to be done. But that's just too easy all at once. I need to come up with more failed approaches in order to make the exercise more entertaining. …From a spectator's perspective, of course."
"You… you can't just bring up Miss Luna to her just to scare her into doing whatever you want!" Filia said, shaking her head wildly back and forth. "That's despicable!"
"Oh? And it's not when you do it?" he prodded.
"When I did it was for a noble cause!" she explained. "And even in that extreme case, with the fate the world at stake, I only used it as a last resort. I tried everything else to get her to agree with me before that, but she forced my hand."
"What else exactly did you try?" he challenged.
"I told her all about what the prophecy of destruction said and how much was at risk," Filia said, eager to establish her alibi. She punctuated her claim with a mournful sigh. "It would've moved any normal person to help, but Miss Lina is so stubborn sometimes…"
"Yes," Xellos mused. "A sentimental story wouldn't do much to get Miss Lina on someone's side at all. If anything, that kind of thing tends to aggravate her."
Filia looked up at him suddenly, eyes wide. "Y-you," she began. "That was not meant to be a suggestion! I was just explaining myself!"
"And your explanation will prove quite useful!" he said brightly. "Now, what else did you try to get her to join you?" he asked with studious interest. "Did you fight her?"
"No!" Filia yelled. "Well… yes," she had to admit, "but just to test her powers, not to try to get her to help. Fighting her wouldn't have made any sense to get her on my side. That wouldn't have—" she cut herself off, but too late.
"It wouldn't have worked at all," Xellos concluded. "Miss Lina's 'respect' for those who face her head-on in battle merely extends to her paying them the courtesy of a particularly fiery explosion. Perfect."
Filia didn't want to let out another peep lest she accidentally say something else that Xellos took as a legitimate suggestion. Maybe I really am the muse of mischief, she thought with some horror.
"Hmm… that should be it… nearly," Xellos said to himself. "I feel like it needs something a little more… obvious and…" He snapped his fingers, a thought having occurred. "Snails!" he said, in the manner that some might say "Eureka!"
"Snails?" Filia repeated. "What does that have to do with ways of asking someone to do something?"
"Not much," Xellos admitted, "but Miss Lina has a horrible fear of snails. I'm sure I can work that into one of our proposals." He pursed his lips in thought. "Now I wonder… is her fear of snails just about snails or does it extend to all sticky and slimy things?"
"Nobody likes slimy things!" Filia pointed out. "Leave it to a pile of smelly garbage to not know that!"
"There's no need to go that far," Xellos said with a frown. "I'm neither slimy nor smelly. I am smooth and well-groomed."
Filia made a face. "I do not want to know about that."
"Well, regardless," Xellos said, gripping the arms of his chair and hoisting himself up, "I think you've provided me with a great deal of useful ideas. Yes, that will just about do it."
Filia stood up. She thought about the carriage waiting outside and Val at school. He'd stop by the shop first and she could send word to Jillas and Gravos. They were trustworthy. She bit her lip. "I… want to come with you," she said.
His tea and saucer vanished; whether he'd meant to dispose of it or if it had been a reflex move out of surprise, she wasn't sure, but he was looking at her as though she was the single most befuddling thing he'd ever come across in his long and eventful life.
"Whether I meant to or not, I gave you ideas," Filia explained, knowing she'd probably regret this rash decision once she was on her way, but pushing forward none of the less. Jillas and Gravos wouldn't mind watching Val for a few days and she could put the shop on a bit of a hiatus. Something was going on and her instinct was to chase it. "I have to take responsibility for that and make sure you don't misuse them."
It took a moment, but he unslackened his jaw. He took a step closer to her. "I can't let you do that, Filia," he said, his voice quiet—not the cheerful assurance of power or the implied sense of threat she'd expected. It was hushed, as though the person with the most to worry about in a confrontation between the two of them was not her, but him.
"I'm not sure what attribute a muse of mischief would have," he went on, reaching forward as though he was going to touch her face, but stopping short, hovering in the air inches away from her. "Perhaps a whoopee cushion or a seltzer squirting flower. Nothing especially dignified that I can imagine. The point is, you can be that for me—here, where the stakes are only personal. But the situation out there could get serious and somehow…" He sucked in air through his teeth. "When things get dangerous, I'm not sure how you do it, but you actually sometimes manage to be that shoulder-angel instead. And I can't have that right now. I have a job to do."
She was drifting toward him. He'd delivered a monologue that somehow involved the phrase "whoopee cushion" and she was still drifting toward him. How the hell did he always manage to do that? It probably had something to do with, in so many words, calling her his angel.
"I… if anything bad happens to Miss Lina," Filia tried, "I'll kill you."
"Spoken just like an angel," Xellos countered ironically.
"You know," he said, tapping his staff on the ground as though grappling with an internal conflict, "things are going to be… quite hectic for me very soon and I may not be able to stop in again for a while. With that said, it seems, oh… reasonable to me for us to perhaps extend Filia Time?"
Filia got the tone. Xellos was on the job right now. He wasn't doing light reconnaissance and waiting around for the next catastrophe. That kind of situation allowed for him to stop by her place, agenda-less, without too much trouble. After all, what was the harm? There was plenty of time and little to do. But now… now he'd come to her because he could construct a work-related reason to visit. Maybe it wasn't a very good one. "I have evil-schemer's block and I need Filia's help to get back on my bastardly A-game," was probably not the best write-off in the world, but it was something. Now that order of business had resolved and he still wanted to stay.
And… she was tempted to let him.
But then there came a very ceramic-sounding crash from the kitchen. Filia could just picture the cookie jar that usually sat on the counter. She'd drawn a scene with an elephant on it and it had taken her quite a bit of time. Now it was probably raining earthenware across the tile floor.
"That… sounded bad," Xellos commented, turning an eye to the closed kitchen door where the panicked sound of two people trying to reassemble pottery without glue or skill could be heard. "Mm, speaking of bad," he added, turning to her with a furrowed brow as though a worrying thought had just occurred, "you don't actually mean you'd try to kill me if anything bad happened to Miss Lina, correct? Surely you'd be willing to accept a minor scuffle and maybe some very temporary imprisonment, yes?"
There was a tremor from Filia; not a full on earthquake, but a good indication that it was time to find a table to hide under and try to remember where you'd stashed the candles and matches in case you had to find them in the dark. "Xellos," she said.
"'Filia Time' is over!" she shouted, shoving him away.